MIXING secrecy with sleaze is a poor recipe for convincing the public to support a cause. An effort to stop a workers’ compensation system reform bill has both ingredients.
The secrecy part we can overlook. Nothing is apparently illegal about how a group calling itself “Oklahoma Works” fails to disclose who’s paying for the anti-reform effort. In the past, pro-business groups have promoted or opposed legislation behind a veil of secrecy regarding donors.
The sleaze part, though, is hard to ignore. “Oklahoma Works” is obviously a front group for lawyers who benefit from the comp system status quo. They profit because the state forces disputed comp claims into a special court system with politically appointed judges. Most states use an administrative system.
A handful of law firms specialize in comp claims and would be hurt by the reform bill. Too bad! As it is, the whole state is hurt by a system in which workers’ comp coverage premiums are among the highest in the nation and far higher than in neighboring states.
A secretly funded website and advertising campaign run by “Oklahoma Works” portrays the reform issue in irrational, emotional terms — trotting out injured workers for testimonies about how the current system worked for them and how the reform plan would have left them high and dry. This is the standard tactic for the trial bar as they hide behind their own millionaire status to claim that reform would hurt the least among us. We saw this with the tort reform debate of recent years, but the Republicans who control state government managed to enact reforms anyway.
Workers’ comp reform is at a critical juncture and has been threatened by a clash of egos in the highest levels of government. Nevertheless, we expect that cooler heads will prevail and a reform bill will hit the governor’s desk soon. Rather than the emotional, irrational arguments being used by “Oklahoma Works,” this debate should center on the real-world effects of the workers’ comp system on small-business owners who pay some of the highest premiums in the country. Their workers wouldn’t suffer because of the change from a judicial system to an administrative system.
Who would suffer are the relatively few lawyers who specialize in workers’ comp claims, raking in cash by doing little but paying secretaries and paralegals to keep the paperwork moving from point to point. If ever an issue called for rational, nonemotional arguments, this is it. The rational argument is that Oklahoma workers’ comp system is needlessly adversarial. This not only benefits lawyers for the claimants but those who defend the cases as well. This was also true of tort reform. In fact, attorneys defending sued parties are paid regardless of the outcome. Lawyers for the plaintiffs typically collect only if they win.
The business community has waited a long time for workers’ comp reform. Incremental steps to achieve reform haven’t gotten the job done. The fix being proposed isn’t a panacea. Nor is it a devastating blow to the rights of injured workers — as “Oklahoma Works” and other reform opponents would have you believe.
We would have more respect for the anti-reform forces if they would come clean and admit that they’re funding the emotion-laden campaign because they stand to lose money if reform is enacted. The state as a whole stands to gain money from reform by making the system less adversarial and by communicating to the nation that Oklahoma is a state that wants businesses to prosper rather than see revenues soaked up by workers’ comp attorneys.